College Football Playoff Expansion: The Definitive Argument Against Eight

On December 3, 2017, the College Football Invitational* Committee met for the final time to decide the four teams that would be playing for its mythical title.  Most agreed that three teams had already punched their ticket: Clemson, Georgia, and Oklahoma were seen by most as shoe-ins.  The drama would be who claimed that fourth and final spot, and while some suggested that U.S.C. was in the mix, must pundits believed it came down to two of college football’s marquee programs:  Ohio State and Alabama.  But somewhere along the way, analysis of the process has become less about which teams have earned the right to play for a championship and more about those with substandard resumes being precluded from doing so.  If some had their way, they would add four more unqualified pretenders to the mix and destroy the value of the only season in all of sports that actually matters.  Below is the definitive argument against the expansion of the college football invitational from four to eight teams.

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After all was said and done, Ohio State and Alabama both had a case to earn the fourth spot in the fourth college football invitational; the problem is, the case against each was either equally strong or equally weak, depending on your persepctive.  For Ohio State, they had just knocked off Wisconsin to win the B1G Ten title, finishing an 11-2 regular season against the second overall ranked schedule, at least according to one site.  Check marks in the negative column included two fifteen point plus losses with an ugly and inexplicable 31 point boat-racing in Iowa city courtesy of the Hawkeyes.

The Crimson Tide had gone 11-1 against the tenth toughest schedule in the country according to that same site.  At least in terms of losses, advantage Alabama.  The negatives against Alabama included that not only did they not win their conference, but they didn’t even play for the title because of their lone loss to Auburn, with critics noting that Alabama’s lone win against a ranked team was three loss LSU (who found a way to lose to a Sun Belt team).  When comparing the two teams, many pointed out that while Ohio State was playing their ninth conference foe Iowa on the road, Alabama was conducting a glorified scrimmage against FCS Mercer in what some have dubbed Chicken Shit Saturday.  Making matters worse, what little the Committee told us (“very little separation between 5 and 8“) the week before, led some to believe that Ohio State’s defeat of then unbeaten Wisconsin while the Tide played the role of spectators meant Ohio State would claim the final spot.  In the end, the Committee went with the Tide, much to the chagrin some.

But this piece isn’t about the merits of the Committee’s selection of Alabama as the fourth team (a selection even this Ohio State fan doesn’t take umbrage with).  The point of this piece is a discussion as to the appropriate number of teams that should be permitted to compete for a title and whether expansion to eight makes any sense at all.  It does not.

Including eighth ranked Michigan State in the playoffs in 2014 might have given them a completely undeserved rematch against Oregon who soundly beat them during the season 46-27.  While Michigan State lost to another playoff team that year, their only quality win came against eventual four loss Nebraska.

What ensued after the selection was entirely predictable-based on Ohio State’s so called snubbing; Playoff Guy was again beating his 8 team playoff drum.  But expanding the playoffs based on the 2017 results misses the core point which lead to the Committee’s dilemma in the first place–the Committee was forced to make an imperfect choice because only three teams were clearly worthy of a playoff spot (this is not to say Alabama wasn’t one of the four best teams in the country, just that there is little from the regular season results that support this).  The question then is, if you arguably don’t have four qualified teams, why on earth would you expand the playoffs to include four more?

And it isn’t just 2017 that one could make the argument that we didn’t need four teams to include the best two–one could make this argument two of the first four years of the college football playoff.  Now before I get into this, I want to clarify one thing.  In the past, I have strongly railed against proponents who have attempted to use the results of the playoff games themselves to justify or denounce the Committee’s selection of teams for their Invitational.  The rationale for objecting to the use of the playoff games results when it comes to selection of teams is that such information will never be available to the Committee when they must select the four teams, unless you have one of these.  However, the same argument cannot be made when it comes to determining the number of qualified playoff contenders that exist each season, as one would expect a review of all data when determining any team’s championship worthiness.  With that in mind, a quick review of the other three years is instructive.

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It is hard to argue against a four team playoff model in 2014.  For one thing, and despite the fact that according to some it was controversial (it wasn’t, as I explain here), Ohio State got the fourth spot ultimately winning its two playoff games and the title.  But the argument for four in 2014 goes deeper than Ohio State winning from the fourth spot, because, and as I argued before from NFL data, any team that gets a chance to play for a title can win one.  The problem in 2014 is that, with the old B.C.S. model, one loss Alabama would have played undefeated and defending champ Florida State for the title.   During much of the season, many noted that Florida State simply didn’t look like a championship team, with narrow wins over Oklahoma State, Notre Dame, Miami, Boston College, Florida, and Virginia Tech.  This means that both of the teams that would have played for the title lost their semi-final games, with Florida State getting routed by Oregon 59-20.  And while the Ohio State game finished a seven point game, to those that appreciate the finer nuances of football, it would have been hard not to notice that Ohio State dominated the game in the trenches much of the night and that Ohio State was able to put up 537 yards of total offense against what was believed to be a stout Tide defense.  One could certainly argue the game wasn’t as close as the final score.

Colin Cowherd explains why going from 4 to 8 would actually increase arguments for teams excluded.

An argument could be made that we didn’t even need four teams in 2015.  Had the BCS still been in effect, Clemson would have been ranked one and Alabama would have been ranked two.  And that is exactly how it played out on the field with each team winning their semifinals in convincing fashion: Clemson beat Oklahoma 37-17 and Alabama laid the wood to Michigan State to the tune of 38-0.  The Tide and Tigers would play the first of two epic Championship games with Alabama winning 45-40.   As such, we would have been better off with the B.C.S. in 2015.

The same can’t be said for the 2016-17 season.  From the link above, and based on Ohio State’s 11-1 finish and strong schedule, the combination of the polls and the BCS computers would have ranked Alabama # 1 and Ohio State # 2.  While we now know how that playoff worked out, with Alabama beating Washington convincingly 24-7 and Clemson drubbing Ohio State 31-0 culminating in a scintillating 35-31 win for Clemson over Alabama, something now seems unsatisfactory about an Ohio State versus Alabama one game final.

So for at least the first four years, one could argue that expanding the playoff field to four teams has been a good move, even if the results were a bit mixed.  But regardless of whether you are fine with all four teams that were selected the first four years, the data simply does not support expanding to an eight team format, at least if your criteria is to ensure that only teams with worthy resumes are included in the mix.  The absurdity of this proposition reveals itself when one looks at some of the teams that would have been permitted to play for a title in an expanded field of eight.  Remember, from my perspective, the goal is to go only so deep that you ensure that you include the two best teams to play for the title (and the trick of course is identifying those two teams when resumes don’t make this clear).  As soon as you identify a team that does not have a championship caliber resume, they should be excluded from the tournament (after all, this isn’t t-ball where everyone gets a trophy).  With that in mind, let’s look at the team slotted eighth for each of the first four years of the College Football Invitational:

  • In 2017, the Committee’s December 3 ballot had U.S.C. listed eighth.  As discussed above, some thought U.S.C., as the Pac 12 Champ, deserved some consideration for the final playoff spot.  But looking at this two loss team more closely shows that while U.S.C. had two wins over top 25 opponents, both were Stanford.  The two losses included a 3 point loss to unranked Washington State and a blowout to 11th ranked Notre Dame 49-14.   For what its worth, U.S.C. was last seen looking anemic against Ohio State in the Cotton Bowl losing 24-7.
  • In 2016, the Committee’s December 4 ballot had 10-3 Wisconsin listed eighth.  While feasting on the rest of its schedule, Wisconsin lost to three teams ranked on the final ballot to include Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State with its only ranked win coming against four loss L.S.U.
  • In 2015, the Committee’s December 6 ballot had the 10-2 Notre Dame Fighting Irish eighth.  That Notre Dame team’s best win was Temple who was ranked # 24 on the Committee’s final ballot.  Notre Dame lost to the only two playoff caliber teams they played, Clemson who was ultimately selected and Stanford who was ranked sixth on the final ballot.  That ND team had narrow wins over unranked Virginia 34-27 and Boston College 19-16 before getting blown out in the Fiesta Bowl by Ohio State 44-10.
  • In 2014, according to the Committee’s December 2 ballot which selected the playoff teams, Michigan State finished eighth with a 10-2 record.  That team’s best win was a home game against an eventual four loss Nebraska team.  That Michigan State team didn’t beat one ranked team that year and lost to two of the playoff teams, Oregon and Ohio State by a combined score of 94-44.

All of this is to say, it is a stretch to argue that any of the four eighth ranked teams above were championship caliber teams who had earned a shot to play for a title.  In addition, letting Michigan State in the tournament in 2014 might have given them a completely undeserved rematch against one of the two teams that beat them decidedly during the regular season, rendering those regular season match-ups almost completely meaningless.  And while I only focused on those teams ranked eighth in the interest of brevity, note that in all of those years I could have picked at least one other team ranked 5 through 7 and exposed them as pretenders based on season resume.

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But as any good scientist will tell you, one’s theory is only as good as the data it is premised upon.  And to date, we are limited to only four College Football Invitationals, leaving this argument vulnerable because of insufficient data.  To address this issue, I next turn to the data from 1998-2013 which compromises the B.C.S. era.  Rather than painstakingly eviscerating the inadequate resumes of teams ranked eighth, I will instead focus on and summarize data from the one key stat that historically has determined which teams play for a title: win-loss record.

What is abundantly clear from the history of college football is that it has valued win-loss record above everything else, using losses as the most significant disqualifying factor in the championship assessment equation of all metrics available to the decision makers.  Case and point–in the twenty years that comprise the B.C.S. and the College Football Invitational period, only one time have the powers that be allowed a two loss team to play for a title–and that was L.S.U. in 2007, arguably the craziest year of college football in the modern era (and from this guy’s perspective, the one year you could actually argue that an eight team field would have made sense to crown a champion).

The problem with playoffs in football, as discussed more fully here, is that it is a war of attrition such that each week injuries impact the outcome to a greater extent.  The College football system, whether by design or merely as an ancillary benefit, minimizes this impact by weighting all the games equally, rather than arbitrary overvaluing a batch of games at the end of the season when it is most likely that the impact of injuries will have their greatest impact (this is also somewhat mitigated against in that there is almost a month gap between the conference championship games and the playoff games).

But the injury problem is further exacerbated in the playoff model by placing all teams on equal footing in a single elimination tournament, irrespective of each team’s win-loss record.  If losses are to mean anything at all, then it is farcical to treat undefeated teams and two loss teams as if they are functionally equivalent.  Expanding the field any appreciable number means that teams with more losses will inevitably be included in the field.   The following chart will help us visualize the breakdown of teams ranked in the top 8 for the last 20 years clustered by number of losses:

Year # 0 loss Teams # 1 loss teams 2+ loss Teams
2017 0  None 5 Clemson, OU, UGA, Alabama, Wisconsin, 3 OSU, Auburn*, USC
2016 1 Alabama 3 Clemson, OSU, Washington 4 PSU, Michigan, OU, Wisconsin*
2015 1 Clemson 5 Albama, MSU, Oklahoma, Iowa, OSU 2 Stanford, ND
2014 1 FSU 5 Oregon, FSU, OSU, Baylor, TCU 2 Mississippi St., MSU
2013 1 FSU 5 Auburn, Alabama, MSU, Baylor, OSU 2 Stanford, Missouri
2012 1 ND 4 Alabama, Florida, OU, K-State 3 Stanford, UGA, LSU
2011 1 LSU 4 Alabama, Ok. State, Stanford, Boise State 3 OU, Arkansas, K-State
2010 3 Auburn, OU, TCU 3 Stanford, Wisconsin, OSU 2 Oklahoma, Arkansas
2009 5 Alabama, Texas, Cinn., TCU, Boise State 1 UF 2 OU, OSU
2008 1 Utah 7 Oklahoma, UF, Texas, Alabama, USC, TTU, PSU 0  None
2007 0  None 2 OSU, Kansas 6 LSU, Va Tech, Oklahoma, UGA, Missouri, USC
2006 2 OSU, Boise State 4 UF, Michigan, Louisville, Wisconsin 2 LSU, USC
2005 2 USC, Texas 2 PSU, OU 4 OSU, ND, UGA, Miami
2004 4 USC, Oklahoma, Auburn, Utah 2 Texas, Cal 2 UGA, Va Tech
2003 0  None 3 Oklahoma, LSU, USC 5 Michigan, OSU, Texas, FSU, Tenn.
2002 2 OSU, Miami 2 UGA, Iowa 4 USC, WSU, Oklahoma, KSU
2001 1 Miami 3 Nebraska, OU, Illinois 4 Colorado, UF, Tenn., Texas
2000 1 Oklahoma 5 FSU, Miami, Wisconsin, Va Tech, Oregon State 2 UF, Nebraska
1999 2 FSU, Va Tech 2 Nebraska, K-State 4 Alabama, Tenn., UW, Michigan
1998 1 Tenn. 5 FSU, K-State, OSU UCLA, Arizona 2 Texas A&M, UF
* 3 loss team

 

From this chart, we can make a number of observations as to how the College Invitational would have changed based solely on number of losses if historically it would have been an eight team affair.  First and foremost, 58 out of 160 occurrences (36.3%) would have included teams that have two or more losses.  Undeniably, then, increasing the playoff field from two to eight means that more than a third of the time we will get first round match-ups that feature a two loss team, with one year where we would have had 2 of these match-ups (2007, admittedly an outlier).  Perhaps even worse, the last two years would have featured first round match-ups with teams that had 3 losses (since we only have two years of data, it is impossible to know if this is a trend based on parity and increased number of games played or an anomaly).

Further exacerbating the imbalance is the fact that this would have resulted in 23 first round match-ups that would have pitted undefeated teams on equal footing with two loss teams, something that on its face seems significantly unbalanced.  And lost some of these years would be the inclusion of 2 loss teams in the playoff mix in seasons where arguably it was already clear who the best two teams were (e.g. 2002 which featured undefeated and defending champs Miami against 13-0 Ohio State).  This would be a marketed shift for a sport that historically above all else has placed an emphasis on winning (or perhaps more aptly put, avoiding losses).  While fans like to pretend otherwise, it isn’t always the case that the best team advances in a playoff format, as I discuss at the end of this piece, where in the NFL, from 2003-2012, the team with the best record won the Super Bowl only one time in that span.  The point is, it makes little sense to ignore the largest set of disqualifying data in the name of ensuring that teams with inferior resumes are included in the championship mix.

An 8 team playoff in 2002 might have meant we never got to see this 2 OT classic between defending champions Miami and 13-0 Ohio State.

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The 2010 B.C.S. season provides an excellent case study for a proposed expansion argument.  That year, according to the B.C.S., the first three teams were all undefeated: Auburn 13-0, Oregon 12-0, and TCU 12-0 (the disparity in wins is that the SEC was playing a conference championship game while other conferences, such as the Pac 12, were not).  As this was the B.C.S. era, only two teams played for a title: Auburn and Oregon who sat one and two, with an undefeated TCU left out (and down below you will see advanced metrics which suggest that this result might have been justified).  According to the final B.C.S. poll, Oklahoma at 10-2 was ranked eighth.  On its face, the disparity between eventual champion Auburn and Oklahoma is striking: not only did Auburn win one more game and go undefeated, but Oklahoma had two losses that year.  And to make it even more impressive, according to Phil Steel, Auburn did it against the nineteenth toughest schedule, while Oklahoma did it against the 22nd most difficult schedule.

But advanced metrics from football outsiders.com highlight an even larger gap between # 1 Auburn and # 8 Oklahoma (who was actually ranked # 9 overall according to their advanced metrics).  I encourage those unfamiliar with these advanced metrics to review their explanation of statistics, which weights data by strength of opponent for all the FBS teams.  As a for instance, the column labeled SOS below is defined as “[s]trength of schedule based on the likelihood of an elite team going undefeated against the given team’s entire schedule.”  For those with a statistical science background, elite teams in this model are defined as teams two standard deviations above the norm.  Thus, comparing the number one and number eight teams that year, the likelihood of an elite team going undefeated against Oklahoma’s schedule was almost five times more likely than doing so against Auburn’s schedule, with the latter including a win over the # 3 ranked Alabama Crimson Tide and a # 6 ranked LSU team according to those advanced metrics.  So, despite the fact that it was five time more likely to go undefeated against Oklahoma’s schedule than Auburn’s, it was Auburn that went undefeated while Oklahoma dropped two games  (# 15 Missouri (9-3, # 12 B.C.S.), and  # 28, Texas A&M (9-3, # 17 B.C.S.)).  From the overall FEI (Freeman Efficiency Index), which weights all 20,000+ college football game snaps, Auburn was almost exactly 50% more efficient than Oklahoma on both sides of the ball to include almost 200% on offense, shocking when one considers how prolific Oklahoma was that season scoring (mean scoring average of 36.4 points per game).  All of this is to say that there was a pretty sizable disparity between the teams that would have met in the first round of the college football playoff, had it existed.

Rk Team FBS
Rec
FEI GE GE
Rk
SOS SOS
Rk
FBS
MW
OFEI Rk DFEI Rk STE Rk FPA Rk
1 Auburn 13-0 .348 .167 14 .038 4 11.4 .857 1 -.480 8 .230 60 .517 40
2 Stanford 11-1 .302 .323 2 .137 31 10.6 .556 5 -.508 6 1.176 37 .529 23
3 Alabama 9-3 .281 .270 5 .054 10 9.7 .618 3 -.403 16 2.682 5 .548 6
4 Oregon 11-1 .267 .258 6 .085 17 10.0 .409 15 -.531 3 1.231 34 .544 9
5 Virginia Tech 11-2 .249 .221 10 .068 14 10.3 .460 8 -.334 25 3.391 1 .564 3
6 LSU 10-2 .247 .110 24 .035 3 9.0 .307 20 -.479 9 3.163 3 .587 2
7 Arkansas 9-3 .245 .131 19 .023 2 8.5 .578 4 -.397 18 .678 47 .508 51
8 Ohio State 12-1 .234 .302 4 .171 43 10.9 .365 16 -.591 2 1.191 36 .543 10
9 Oklahoma 12-2 .231 .167 13 .156 39 11.6 .429 11 -.523 4 1.451 27 .515 42
10 TCU 12-0 .229 .322 3 .476 99 10.9 .421 14 -.487 7 2.356 13 .559 4

 

Advanced Statistics from Football Outsiders.com for first 10 teams in the 2010 College Football Season

As discussed more fully here, the cost of including two loss teams in an expanded tournament would be to diminish the value of the regular season.  As it stands now, each week during the regular season functions as an elimination game, at least after the first loss, since we know from the first 4 years that 13 of 16 teams selected to play in the playoffs were one loss teams (the other three were undefeated).  The trade-off for inclusion of inferior teams by resume will be far fewer meaningful games during the season, either because 2 losses will become the accepted standard for admission approximately a third of the time or because teams might decide to rest players at the end of the schedule once they have seemingly already clinched a spot, often when rivalry games are played.  Fans clamor for expanded playoffs in part because they have been conditioned to believe that they are necessary based on the bloated brackets utilized in other sports (for example, no one seriously believes there are 16 championship caliber teams each year in the NBA), and in part because an increased emphasis on championships by fans and the media means that they are willing to trade the value of the regular season for an increased chance that their team makes the playoffs, even if historically it is undeserved.

What this writer suspects has driven playoff expansion talk has been a misplaced focus on the exclusion of teams on the back-end of the invitational, such as what occurred in 2014 when fans and pundits fought over whether it should have been Ohio State, TCU, or Baylor.  Regardless, and even in those years where the separation between team four and five is small, it makes absolutely no sense to double the field to eight, as demonstrated above when assessing the various resumes of the teams ranked in the eighth slot for the first four years of the Invitational or the example from the 2010 season.  By keeping the number of teams that qualify for the Invitational at a small number, College Football not only protects the value of the regular season, but it ensures that whichever team is crowned the champion will be a worthy one.  This is something that cannot be said with a straight face in the NFL where we have been asked to pretend that a 12-7 team was the champs over an 18-1 team when the teams involved split their head to head match-ups (this really happened).

If we had a 8 team playoff in 2005, instead of a guaranteed Texas vs. U.S.C. classic, we would have been fighting over which of 11 two loss teams should have captured the last three playoff spots.  Bigger is not always better.

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Now I want to address a few of the misguided arguments often made for an eight team playoff.  The primary argument advanced is that expanding the field will end much of the debate regarding teams that were left out of the invitational.  But if you clicked on video link above, Colin Cowherd does a very good job of explaining why this wouldn’t be the case, with arguments instead shifting to those teams excluded on the back end.  While Colin does this by analogizing to the top fast food restaurants in America, I want to demonstrate this by extrapolating from data, again both from the B.C.S. and invitational eras.

The information below represents the breakdown of the top ranked teams for the last 20 years, with teams clustered as zero, one, two, and three plus loss teams.  Prior to analyzing the data, the viewer must consider that it won’t be as simple as say including all undefeated teams, then 1 loss teams, then only including two plus loss teams in those year where we can’t draw eight from the first two groupings.  This is so, because the Top 25 represents all schools from the FBS, which means that several instances will include teams ranked from the non-power 5 conferences.  While we can debate whether those teams should be included in the playoff mix more often, what we can’t debate is that, to date, these teams have not been given an opportunity to play for a title under either format.  So with that caveat, here is the breakdown of data for the last 20 years of college football:

Year 0 1 2 3+  Tot
2017 1 5 6 13 25
2016 2 3 4 16 25
2015 1 6 8 10 25
2014 1 5 3 16 25
2013 4 8 7 6 25
2012 1 5 13 6 25
2011 3 9 8 5 25
2010 3 6 7 9 25
2009 5 1 6 13 25
2008 2 8 4 11 25
2007 1 2 10 12 25
2006 2 4 10 9 25
2005 2 4 11 8 25
2004 5 3 6 11 25
2003 0 6 7 12 25
2002 2 2 6 5 15
2001 1 4 7 3 15
2000 1 6 7 2 16
1999 3 2 5 5 15
1998 2 6 5 2 15
Tot 42 95 140 174 451
Pct 0.093 0.211 0.31 0.386

The chart above allows us to get a quick overview of team clusters broken down by losses.  Keep in mind, while historically losses are the most significant factor, we know that the B.C.S. and the Invitational Committee considers many other variables in their calculus to include the quality of the wins and losses (so that, for example, losing to a team that ends up ranked in the top 10 won’t be weighed the same as a loss to a FCS team).  This just means that when you look at the data, you have to carefully consider the polling context.  What you will begin to see most years, once you remove the undefeated and one loss teams that are from non-Power 5 conferences, most would not seriously object to sweeping the rest of the undefeated and one loss teams into the playoff field.  The eventual problem with this statistically is that most years this will not fill out a bracket of 8, meaning that you will have to choose the remaining teams from the expected 31% of the teams that will have finished with two losses, a block that is larger than both that of the undefeated and one loss teams put together.

For example, in 2005, there probably would have been little doubt that U.S.C. (12-0, # 1 B.C.S.), Texas (12-0, # 2 B.C.S.), Penn State (10-1, # 3 B.C.S.) and Oregon (10-1 # 5 B.C.S.) would be four invitational teams, at least based on what we have seen from the Committee thus far.  It is interesting to note there were two other one loss teams that year that were ranked below five two losses teams based on S.O.S: West Virginia (10-1, B.C.S. # 11) and TCU (10-1, B.C.S. # 14).  In all likelihood, the Committee would have included West Virginia in the mix as a member of the old Big East which was accorded treatment as a Power 5 conference, but almost certainly would have excluded the Horned Frogs who were a member of the Mountain West Conference (and the reason they were ranked # 14 in the first place based on the strength of their conference schedule primarily).  So far, so good.

But this is where it gets messy–assuming the Committee doesn’t want to select 3 loss teams, they would have to choose 3 teams from the following eleven 2 loss teams: Ohio State (9-2), Notre Dame (9-2), Georgia (10-2), Miami (9-2), Auburn (9-2), Virginia Tech (10-2). LSU (10-2), Alabama (9-2), Texas Tech (9-2), UCLA (9-2) and Louisville (9-2).  All of these teams would be from the equivalent of today’s P5 conferences.  Remember, historically the key variable in separating the teams is number of losses, so that here, with this many teams sitting at 2 losses, the focus will then have to shift to all secondary statistics to delineate teams whose resumes on their face appear similar.  This results in a shift in the discussion from inclusion of the best teams in a 4 team format to trying to decide which of similarly situated 2 loss teams should be included to round out the bottom of the bracket.  And all of this in 2005 would have been occurring in a season where one could argue that we only needed two teams in the first place, U.S.C. and Texas, who were the only two undefeated teams from major P5 conferences.  And lest you think this would be an isolated incident, similar scenarios would have played out in varying degrees in 2012, 2007, 2006, 2004, 2002, 2001, and 1999.

 

Playoff Guy won’t be satisfied until we have a bracket that looks like this in College Football.

Another misguided argument that appears in almost every article I’ve read is the idea that if more teams were given entry to the College Football Invitational, then teams would then be motivated to schedule better out of conference games during the regular season.  For those that are not familiar with the intricacies of college football scheduling, teams belong to one of ten conferences.  Half of those conferences are known as the Power 5 and are comprised of the following conferences: ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac 12, and the SEC, and it is generally accepted that invitational teams will come from the field of these five conferences (and indeed, all teams that played for a BCS title or were given a playoff invitation were from these five conferences).  Teams schedule their out of conference games via a contract with each other, with these games often scheduled several years in advance.

What is a source of controversy and frustration for the fans is that there is no consistency regarding conference scheduling, in large part because the conferences themselves are independent entities not subject to a larger governing body, as is the case for say a NFC East team being subject to uniform regulations in the NFL.  Fans often mistakenly believe that the conferences come under the control of the NCAA because they do not understand the role of the NCAA–for instance, the NCAA does not even recognize a champion in FBS college football, something most fans don’t know.  All FBS college teams now play 12 regular season games; the source of this controversy stems from the fact that the B1G Ten, Pac 12, and Big 12 play 9 conference games, while the SEC and the ACC only play 8.  By playing one less conference game, it allows ACC and SEC teams to schedule one more out of conference opponent from either another FBS conference that is not a P5 conference opponent, a traditionally weak P5 opponent, or a team from the lower FCS subdivision.  This of course gives these schools the opportunity to control the quality of the opponent for one game, something that can make the difference in what is often a razor thin margin that turns on each team’s total number of losses more often than not.

For instance, in one article I read, the author suggested that Ohio State must be “kicking themselves” for scheduling Oklahoma this year while Alabama played 6-6 Florida State, Colorado State, Mercer, and Fresno State out of conference.  What this argument ignores is the high-risk high reward nature of scheduling such games: while the 2 losses almost certainly cost B1G Ten Champ Ohio State a playoff spot this year, beating Oklahoma last year was often cited as the very reason Ohio State made the Invitational despite not winning its conference.  And while an expanded playoff format may very well mean that teams would be more likely to schedule more aggressively, this argument ignores the fact that the very reason teams would be willing to do this would be because the impact of a loss would be blunted since 2 and 3 loss teams would inevitably make the invitational more often.  So in other words, that marquee matchup you’d be watching just wouldn’t mean as much.  The answer to the scheduling imbalance is more simple and straight forward anyway–change the weight of the selection criteria considered by the Committee.  If College Football really wants to shut down the shameful practice of Chicken Shit Saturday, then penalize Alabama for playing Mercer in November when other contenders are playing grueling conference games that final month of the season.  Problem solved.

Finally, I feel compelled to address the most commonly suggested 8 team playoff format by fans who think they have unearthed a fix to this “broken system”: all five P5 conference winners get an automatic bid and 3 teams earn at-large bids.  There are at least two things wrong with this model.  First of all, this contradicts the stated goal of the college invitational to select the best teams.  As I discussed here, the conference championship game (“CCG” hereafter) can aptly be described as a fraud, at least the way it often plays out some years.  Stated succinctly, the CCG usually pits the winners of two conference subdivisions comprised of six teams each.  With only six teams per division, there is nothing that statistically suggests that the two best teams will be spread out evenly between the divisions each year.  And in recent history this has often not been the case (e.g. think about the difference between the SEC West and East divisions or the B1G Ten East versus the West the last couple of years).  Though some fans didn’t like it, Ohio State was chosen over Penn State last year despite the fact that the latter beat the former and won the conference because Ohio State had one fewer total losses against a significantly tougher schedule and because Penn State was routed by a Michigan team 49-14 that Ohio State beat.  This year, two conference champs were left out so that two SEC teams could be included in the field of four, and that proved to be prescient as both won their semi-final games and # 4 Alabama won it all.  But it could be far worse, as I explained in the linked piece above, as was often the case in the old Big 12 (back when the conference actually had 12 teams).  It would not be out of the realm of possibilities that a four loss division champ might win their CCG, because, as we know, anything can happen in one football game, and often does in college ball.  So while it might be neat and clean to just include all conference champs from P5 conferences, in practice, this would lead to clearly unworthy teams being included in the playoff mix.

Regarding the teams to be chosen at large, what Playoff Guy refuses to acknowledge is that no matter how you pick teams for the playoffs, you will need a committee or polls to distill 130 teams down to your desired number and/or to seed the teams in your tournament (and this is important because football is a match-up sport).  If that is the case, all you would be doing is expanding the same “flawed” process to pick more teams, teams that you know from a resume perspective are inferior.  Stated another way, if you have faith in the process to select 8 teams, either by poll or a committee, then why don’t we have faith that the first four selected by the same manner weren’t in fact correct?  I mean, weren’t they seeded higher than the last four for a reason?  Playoff Guy doesn’t have answers to these questions, he just wants a bigger bracket at the expense of the regular season because he has been conditioned by other sports’ leagues to believe this is necessary (those bloated playoff brackets exist simply so those leagues can sell more content to the networks).

As much as this Ohio State fan would have liked to have seen his Buckeyes compete for a title this year, their 12 regular season games provided enough data for the Committee to correctly conclude that they were not a championship caliber team.  Championship teams in college football historically don’t lose twice, and they don’t get taken behind the woodshed by a 7-5 team.  What made the Iowa game so important was the knowledge that that Saturday Ohio State had for all intense and purposes been eliminated from playoff contention, in what was a de facto playoff game.  Some Ohio State fans and other pundits deluded themselves into thinking the Buckeyes should have played for a title because they shifted their focus from whether historically Ohio State was worthy to whether or not Ohio State had a good case relative to the Crimson Tide, flawed thinking if one is willing to acknowledge the possibility that perhaps on resume alone there might not have been four qualified teams this year.  Finally, what Playoff Guy doesn’t realize is that there already exists more than two playoff games in college football each year anyway, they just are not neatly labeled and packaged at the end of the campaign as is the case in all other sports.  And that is precisely what makes college football so great–such an elimination game can be played at any point during the season.

* I will concede to Playoff Guy’s argument the current selection system would more aptly be described as an invitational than a playoff based on the manner in which teams are presently selected by a Committee.



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